Thanksgiving — as Canadian as pirates

Early tradition of expressing debt to farmers is worth reviving


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My boss asked me the other day if I would write something about Thanksgiving. My first reaction was, Gobble Gobble, are you kidding? He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into his office, but I decided to give it some thought anyway.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2009 (4685 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My boss asked me the other day if I would write something about Thanksgiving. My first reaction was, Gobble Gobble, are you kidding? He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into his office, but I decided to give it some thought anyway.

After a quick look at some online sources and a few dusty old encyclopedias in the Free Press library, I discovered that Canadian Thanksgiving actually has an interesting and controversial history. Did you know, for example, that the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America was held in Canada, not the United States as many of us have been led to believe?

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the explorer and pirate Martin Frobisher held the first Thanksgiving on Baffin Island in 1578 to give thanks for the safe arrival of his crew after a voyage of discovery. That’s 43 years before the famous and better-known Pilgrim celebration in Massachusetts in 1621, the one with the roast turkey, potatoes and pumpkin pie.

Baffin Island isn’t as good a setting as Plymouth for a Thanksgiving story, but Frobisher is a much better character than any of the early tight-lipped, grim-faced Pilgrims. In his early life, Frobisher was imprisoned for piracy by both the Portuguese and the English. He was so good at it, in fact, that the English Crown granted him clemency and hired him as a pirate hunter.

He was eventually tasked with finding a northwest passage to China, which ultimately brought him to the shores of Canada. He never found the route, but he brought back 200 tonnes of ore that he thought was gold. It turned out to be fool’s gold.

The Americans, of course, don’t buy the story about Frobisher celebrating the first Thanksgiving in North America. Some of them apparently think neither Frobisher nor the Arctic were Canadian, but then the Pilgrims weren’t Americans. They were English.

Robert Ruby, an American journalist and the author of the The Unknown Shore, says the Frobisher story is a bit of an exaggeration. A prayer of thanks was offered by a minister in Frobisher’s crew, he concedes, but “it was not accompanied by a special meal.” No turkey, no thanksgiving.

“Was it a first thanksgiving?” Ruby asks. “Well, it was the first English prayer service in North America.”

Thanksgiving, of course, predates both Frobisher and the Pilgrims. It was well-established in Europe as an agricultural celebration to give thanks for the bounty of the earth, so it is certainly possible that Frobisher may have regarded his turkey-less celebration as a true Thanksgiving. It really requires a better understanding of what constituted a Thanksgiving celebration in Elizabethan England.

In A Wealth of Meanings: Thanksgiving in Ontario, 1859-1914, historian Peter Stevens also disputes the notion that Frobisher’s celebration was an authentic Thanksgiving event. He says there is no Canadian equivalent of the American epic, which is still the best story on the traditions and meaning of modern Thanksgiving.

(Both stories involve aboriginals, but, unlike the Americans, Frobisher tried to capture some “Eskimo” following the prayer service and ended up with an arrow in the buttocks.)

After the American Revolution, the loyalists brought their holiday traditions to Canada, but celebration of Thanksgiving remained sporadic until 1879 when Canadians began to mark it annually, although the date changed every year.

Stevens says it was Protestant clergyman, not any civil authority, that established the modern-day traditions of Thanksgiving in Canada. They viewed Thanksgiving as a way to shape Canada into a Christian nation and one that was anti-American, pro-British, white and Protestant.

“While American preachers had looked to the past and the story of the pilgrims in their nationalist sermons, Canadian preachers looked to the future and the glorious Canadian destiny,” Stevens says.

Catholics, ethnic minorities and other groups were originally excluded or discouraged from marking the celebration. Catholics, he says, tried to celebrate it as a non-religious event, but the government sabotaged their plans by holding the holiday on a day that Catholics were supposed to be fasting. It seems odd today, but it wasn’t that long ago that Catholics were a despised group.

Thanksgiving in the early years was also viewed as a time for urban Canadians to consider their debt to farmers, Stevens says. That’s a tradition worth reviving, particularly at a time when fewer and fewer people are producing the food for which we will give thanks this weekend.

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